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If Jane had her way, she would probably tell us that she doesn’t have any character to speak of; she’s happy just to be Mr. Rochester’s "plain, Quakerish governess," an orphan-turned-teacher whose clothes are all either black or gray and who never really kicks the habit of calling Rochester her "master."
Jane spends a lot of time as a wallflower trying to fade into the woodwork—sometimes literally, such as at the moment where she hides in the shadows at the end of the hall while Blanche Ingram and a group of dolled-up ladies sweep past. She even tries to hide herself in the story she’s telling; we figure out that she’s in love with Rochester long before she actually tells us. But somehow we get the idea that—her reticence and meekness aside—Jane is actually one of the strongest and most intense characters in the novel.
It all starts with Jane’s childhood trauma in the "red room," a weird bedroom at Gateshead where her Uncle Reed died nine years before. When Jane stands up to her nasty cousin John Reed, her aunt locks her in the red room alone as a punishment—it’s just Jane, a lot of red velvet furnishings, a few white things, and an eerie silence.
Then something starts happening—maybe it’s the ghost appearing, maybe not, but Jane completely loses it. We talk about the symbolism of the red room itself under "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory," and you can read more about it there, but let’s think about the effect of this experience on Jane’s character, and what it means that she had the experience in the first place. (Try to forget for a minute that she’s ten years old at this point, which seems a little old to us to be afraid of ghosts or spooky antique furniture.)
Here’s how Jane describes her feelings while she’s locked in the red-room:
What a consternation of soul was mine that dreary afternoon! How all my brain was in tumult, and all my heart in insurrection! Yet in what darkness, what dense ignorance, was the mental battle fought! I could not answer the ceaseless inward question—why I thus suffered; now, at the distance of—I will not say how many years, I see it clearly. (1.2.29)
What we get from this is that Jane is "in her own head" a lot, always analyzing everything that happens to her and trying to figure out why it’s happening that way. She doesn’t just object to being locked in the red room because it isn’t decorated up to Martha Stewart’s exacting standards or because the red curtains give it bad feng shui.
What she objects to is being imprisoned for behaving in self-defense, because that’s not fair. It’s not the punishment itself that’s the real problem in her mind—just the fact that she is being punished without good cause. In this interpretation, the red room is just an innocent bystander: Jane’s trauma there is the "mental battle" that children have to go through at some point to recognize that there is unchallenged injustice in the world, and some of it might happen to them personally.
With that said, it doesn’t seem like a pink room or an animal-print-themed room would have quite the same significance here.
Jane will go through a lot of different relationships over the years, but most of them boil down to one basic dynamic: the teacher-student connection.
Jane’s ticket out of Gateshead is agreeing to become a student at Lowood Institute, and she finally gains the approval of the people around her for the first time in her life by working hard and making herself into a good student. Her study skills make it possible for her to become a teacher and a governess—in other words, to have a career and earn a living (which was a difficult thing for a woman, especially a young, single woman with no powerful friends, to do in Victorian England).
So far, so good, right? But here’s the thing: the fact that teacher-student relationships are central to Jane’s success means that she often has trouble letting them go. In fact, the way she relates to most of the people in her life, from Helen Burns to Diana and St. John Rivers to Mr. Rochester himself, is either as their master or their pupil (or sometimes both).
This starts with Helen; she’s close to Jane’s age and is Jane’s first real friend, but she also knows a lot more than Jane does—both about schoolwork and about Christian morality. She’s not Jane’s equal; she’s Jane’s teacher, or at least someone that Jane hero-worships and learns from.
Jane’s cousin Diana Rivers will be a very similar type of friend; Jane tells us directly that, when she’s hanging out with Diana and Mary, "If in our trio there was a superior and a leader, it was Diana" (3.4.4). According to Jane, this is because "the part of instructress pleased and suited her" and "that of scholar pleased and suited me no less" (3.4.4). In relation to her female friends, then, Jane often reverts to the dynamic she learned as a child, where she is the faithful pupil and the compassionate women around her are her teachers.
The men in Jane’s life are a somewhat different story. Jane doesn’t naturally look up to them as friendly teachers, perhaps simply because all of her formative experiences at Lowood involved authority figures who were either intelligent, loving women or selfish, hypocritical men.
This makes it tough for Jane to relate to men like Rochester or St. John because she doesn’t have a pre-set emotional pattern for dealing with men who aren’t trying to cut off the hair of orphan girls to make them humble (or some other weird thing like that). When Jane and Rochester argue about their relationship, for example, Jane won’t let Rochester claim that he’s older and therefore wiser; she’ll call him "master" and take his orders to humor him because he’s her employer... but she knows that he's not always right and she doesn’t hesitate to lecture him.
Finally, there’s St. John Rivers. At first, Jane is able to stand up to St. John, look him in the eye, and tell him exactly what she does and doesn’t need in her life. But once she agrees to let St. John teach her Hindustani, she seems to be more and more under his thumb all the time:
I found him a very patient, very forbearing, and yet an exacting master: he expected me to do a great deal; and when I fulfilled his expectations, he, in his own way, fully testified his approbation. By degrees, he acquired a certain influence over me that took away my liberty of mind: his praise and notice were more restraining than his indifference. I could no longer talk or laugh freely when he was by, because a tiresomely importunate instinct reminded me that vivacity (at least in me) was distasteful to him. I was so fully aware that only serious moods and occupations were acceptable, that in his presence every effort to sustain or follow any other became vain: I fell under a freezing spell. When he said "go," I went; "come," I came; "do this," I did it. But I did not love my servitude: I wished, many a time, he had continued to neglect me. (3.8.68)
Becoming St. John’s student and obeying him the way she would obey a teacher makes it difficult for Jane to maintain her own personality and nature. She won’t ever really break away from St. John’s influence under her own power, and she’ll only be able to go back to Rochester when St. John leaves to visit Cambridge for a few weeks and she stops feeling like his pupil.
For the first ten years of Jane’s life, she is bullied and teased and lorded over and sometimes even beaten. But then the really interesting thing happens: without any support, without any friend or mentor or teacher (except Bessie, the nursemaid, who is sometimes a little bit nice to her), she rises up against oppression. Go Jane, go!
This is only the first of many times that Jane’s going to show a keen ethical sensibility that seems to come out of... nowhere. Without any teaching, without anyone else to validate her, Jane knows what’s right and what’s wrong, and it makes her furious when people get away with injustice.
While she’s at Lowood, Jane’s encounter with Helen Burns teaches her about a different kind of reaction to suffering and injustice—a New Testament "love your enemies," "turn the other cheek" philosophy. For Helen, what’s right is not to insist on your own rights, but to be continually meek and forgiving and emulate Jesus. Jane is amazed by this attitude, but she’s not able to adopt it:
"I feel this, Helen; I must dislike those who, whatever I do to please them, persist in disliking me; I must resist those who punish me unjustly. It is as natural as that I should love those who show me affection, or submit to punishment when I feel it is deserved." (1.6.52)
So Jane, at least at first, is one of those people who can’t let anything go by—she has to stand up for herself and for a strict interpretation of moral laws. If Helen Burns represents New Testament love and forgiveness at this point, the child version of Jane Eyre represents an Old Testament code of justice as retaliation: "an eye for an eye" kind of thing. (Technically this is called the lex talionis, which means "the law of the claw"—cool, eh?—although that phrase doesn’t get used in the novel.) You can probably guess what this means for the plot: Jane’s going to have to learn when to stand on principle, when to forgive, and how to tell the difference between those situations.
Jane’s big ethical crisis as an adult is her reaction to Rochester’s attempt to make her his mistress. Her decision to abandon the man she loves, who is offering her affection, money, and an easy life, shows once again what a strong sense of principle she has. In fact, at this point, we find her clinging to principle just a little bit irritating. Couldn’t she cut Rochester a break? He’s really in a bind, and he does love her.
Maybe that’s why she needs to meet St. John Rivers and learn why hard work and ethics are great, but they don’t exactly keep you warm at night, if you know what we mean. Jane’s decision to go back to Rochester and let him know that she’s forgiven him comes when she supernaturally hears his voice out of nowhere—not when she finds out that he’s become a widower.
Maybe her principles do change toward the end of the novel; maybe she learned something from Helen Burns after all.
So far, we’ve suggested that Jane is famous for her plainness (plain Jane... get it?) and her morality. That sounds just great, right? But maybe not very interesting?
Well, here’s the thing: Jane is also just a little bit weird. A little eerie. A little… otherworldly. We’re not going to go so far as to say that she’s actually a fairy or an elf, but there are a lot of moments where she seems a bit strange: when she looks into the mirror as a child, for example, she doesn’t recognize herself. When Rochester meets her, she spooks his horse. Her moods change quickly and she’s always bantering with Rochester or being sweetly contrary.
It’s no wonder that Rochester thinks she’s some kind of malicious (but kind of hawt) sprite:
"When you came on me in Hay Lane last night, I thought unaccountably of fairy tales, and had half a mind to demand whether you had bewitched my horse: I am not sure yet." (1.13.40)
"If I dared, I’d touch you, to see if you are substance or shadow, you elf!—but I’d as soon offer to take hold of a blue ignis fatuus light in a marsh." (2.7.22)
"You mocking changeling—fairy-born and human-bred! You make me feel as I have not felt these twelve months." (3.11.106)
Why is Jane always being compared, especially by Rochester, to these supernatural creatures? Well, she may not actually be a fairy, but let’s think about what she does have that seems unusual or unnatural or different from everyone else:
All these different kinds of unusual resistance, strength, and integrity make Jane practically a space alien in the world of the novel, so it’s no wonder that Rochester’s always characterizing her as a fairy or elf or otherworldly spirit.
Then there’s the problem of Jane’s last name, how to pronounce it, and what it means—but we’ve covered that in the "What’s Up With the Title?" section, so you should check it out there.